RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And the attack in San Bernardino earlier this month raised the alarm over homegrown terrorism - attacks that aren't necessarily coordinated from overseas. As FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Judiciary Committee this month, detecting independent actors can be hard.
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JAMES COMEY: Critical to our finding those people who are radicalizing in their homes is tips from the community. We have worked very, very hard to develop good relationships in communities all across the country, especially in Muslim communities.
MONTAGNE: In fact, many American Muslims have come to regard the FBI with suspicion. And as NPR's Martin Kaste reports, local police say they're often better positioned to get those tips.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Two Los Angeles police officers are sitting in a modest Indian restaurant passing some time before an appointment. Their business cards say they're part of LAPD's counterterrorism bureau. But Officer Shawn Alexander does not want you to read too much into that.
SHAWN ALEXANDER: We are totally separated from our investigators. The hunters and pursuers - we don't engage with them, they don't engage with us. We're on a totally separate floor.
KASTE: He wants to make that clear because he and his partner, Ashley Jimenez, on are the community engagement side of things. For instance, this appointment they're waiting for - they've been invited to speak at an Islamic madrasa. It's a religious school just a few doors down from here. Alexander says the school is pretty conservative. He's actually surprised they were invited, and he wants to make the right impression.
ALEXANDER: If we're there for information gathering or investigation purposes or we're trying to get information on the community, it's kind of a slap in the face to the community. It's like saying - telling the community that we're here because we think something is going to happen here. But that's not why we're there.
KASTE: But why would counterterrorism cops visit a mosque if they're not looking for information? Because it's the smart thing to do, says Anders Strindberg.
ANDERS STRINDBERG: In a sense, it's an adaptation for counter-radicalization purposes of good old-fashioned community policing methods.
KASTE: Strindberg is an expert in this subject at the Naval Postgraduate School Center for Homeland Defense and Security. He says the cops probably aren't going to spot a self-radicalized potential terrorist. But the community might.
STRINDBERG: And I know this sounds kind of crunchy, but what you really need are communities that feel a level of trust and integration that allows them to reach out.
KASTE: So if the police offer those people services, say extra protection when they feel threatened or advice on dealing with City Hall, then they'll feel invested in the larger society. This approach is sometimes called CVE - countering violent extremism. It's part of the federal antiterrorism strategy, but Strindberg says it's been hampered by competition between the FBI and Homeland Security, as well as a vitriolic - that's his word - argument over the role for local cops. There's skepticism among Muslims, too.
SALAM AL-MARAYATI: If there is such a program, which I don't believe there is in the United States, it's an idea, it's a framework.
KASTE: Salam Al-Marayati is president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. He says CVE suffers from being too vague about its goals. He wants to make sure these friendly relationship-building cops don't start asking questions about religion or social customs. And he wants people to be clear about what should be reported to the police and what shouldn't.
AL-MARAYATI: I mean, if it's stockpiling ammunition in somebody's apartment and buying explosives, of course they should report that kind of behavior. But if it's just about how a person is dressed or how a person is religious, then no.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing in foreign language).
KASTE: The two LAPD officers have now made their entrance at the madrasa. It's a modest storefront packed with traditionally dressed boys and girls. They stare shyly at the officers, and then the kids see something they weren't expecting.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).
KASTE: As the imam starts the evening prayer, Officer Alexander joins in, kneeling in the first row. He's a Muslim. It's a big reason he does this work. When the prayer is over, the kids crowd around him and his partner.
ALEXANDER: (Foreign language spoken).
KASTE: After he greets them, they pepper the cops with questions. Some of it's about their fear of a backlash. The memory of San Bernardino is still raw in this city. The officers also give advice to a mother who wonders what to do if she's harassed because of her headscarf. And then a little girl demands to know if the officers are detectives.
ALEXANDER: No, we're - we don't drive around a police car and chase bad guys. Our job is to connect with the community and to make sure, like, that the community gets what they need, OK?
KASTE: Then it's time for the pizza party, with the kids begging the officers for LAPD stickers. On the way out of the madrasa, one father points to Officer Alexander and says I'd rather call him than the FBI. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Los Angeles.
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